I have based my life’s work on the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, that words matter because they can heal or hurt in so many ways. The misuse of words can cause us to do abominable, hurtful things to our fellow humans and can cause the phenomenon known as mass hysteria.
I think we are witnessing it now.
Mass hysteria is defined as a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, or irrational behavior or beliefs. It can also be an inexplicable illness, but that really isn’t pertinent to this discussion. It is often driven by fear.
Some people are consumed with the idea that the entire worldwide scientific community has conspired to submit the rest of us to the “hoax” of the coronavirus. Others are certain that we have Hollywood celebrities that drink children’s blood and adrenochrome and are secretly trafficking children and protecting pedophiles. Does any of this make any logical sense? Where are the facts to back up these ideas? The sheer repetition of such ideas can make them seem true, even when they are patently false.
What fuels mass hysteria is the power of suggestion. According to verywellmind.com, mass hysteria is related to groupthink. Dr. Irving L. Janis defined groupthink as “a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups.” If an idea is put forth strongly enough and frequently enough, people begin to believe it is true whether or not the evidence of truth is there. An example from early American history is the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Many of the women and men hanged for witchcraft were accused by a group of young girls, but no one saw anything solid or had any real evidence. Even the courts of the day began to take the word of the young girls over other, more steady voices in the community. And it turned out there were some underlying reasons that people were willing to let their fellow community members be labeled as witches: greed, jealously, covetousness. It was a bleak time in history.
I used to teach Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible”, and explained that he wrote it at a time in America when dissent was unsafe and speech was being curtailed by many different entities. In the early 1950s, to disagree with the administration in charge would result in being labeled a Socialist, Communist, or at the very least, a “sympathizer”. People lost their jobs because they received such labels, and many people were afraid to speak out. While reading “The Crucible”,students would say it seemed impossible to believe the court would let these lying girls send innocent people to their deaths. As Miller said, “the thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. So the evidence has to be internally denied.”
Does that have a familiar ring to it?
“The Crucible” was about the Salem witchcraft trials, and a lot of parallels could be drawn between the mass hysteria of that time and the 1950s. Until it was finally disbanded, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led by Senator Joe McCarthy, led a reign of terror that basically called anyone they didn’t like a Communist. I can see some disturbing similarities to that era and our present one. There is a ton of groupthink going on, and some of that has gotten so extreme that it could probably be termed as mass hysteria. A recent example is the moment in one of the Trump rallies where the crowd chants, “lock her up!” The subject of the chant? The governor of Michigan. In 2016, when the Christian author Max Lucado had the nerve to ask in one of his columns if people thought Trump was a decent man, he received death threats from other Christians. This is groupthink at its worst. I don’t have to point out that these are not people trying to be thoughtful citizens and voters. These are people caught up in the moment, chanting and saying things we can only hope most of them don’t really mean. And groupthink can occur on either side of the political arena, but the constant rallies by the Trump organization contribute to the groupthink phenomenon in a much more impactful and disturbing way.
The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health said groupthink increases as group cohesiveness increases, which may help explain the phenomenon of mass hysteria. The group members feed off each other’s emotional reactions, causing the panic to escalate. Suddenly anyone who isn’t part of a certain group is a socialist, Marxist, or at the very least, a liberal. Most of this is pure foolishness. Is Colin Powell a socialist? He endorsed Joe Biden. What about Cindy McCain? The last time I checked, she was a very staunch Republican. In reality, I think most of the people who are voting for Biden want change. Saying that they are Socialist is like saying every Trump supporter wants a dictator.
I have heard the argument from some evangelicals that this election is a fight for good vs. evil. Again, that isn’t appealing to people’s rational thought processes, but is instead works to stoke fear and sets up a terrible dichotomy. There are plenty of Trump supporters who are troubled by the nasty, mean spirited things he says and tweets. There are plenty of Biden supporters who either think his policy ideas are too liberal (or not liberal enough). But good vs. evil? Please. This isn’t Satan vs. Jesus. This is a democratic election, and to act like either side can only be one or the other shows me that you are not being a thoughtful person. Our country needs independent thinkers who will analyze and make decisions, not based on the meme of the day or some other catch phrase of groupthink, but on what is really good for this country. We are not always going to agree on what that is, either. We never have.
I have friends who are Biden supporters but don’t want people to know because they fear people will start thinking they are somehow “un-American”. I also know some silent Trump supporters who disagree with Biden’s policies but are ashamed of Trump’s public antics and don’t want to be associated with that image. This makes me believe that groupthink is doing it’s job– making people believe that there is only one way to think, which is about as un-American as you can get.
I look forward to a time when we can have differences in opinions without resorting to name calling; to people actually listening to what a person with a different viewpoint says; and to a day when, even if we can’t agree with them, we call each other brother and sister and still show respect for one another at the end of the day.